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Western Morning News

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11:00 - 30 April 2004

March 25: Farms Minister Lord Whitty admits the Government was wrong to cover up Dring's report

MARCH 5: The exclusive story of how vet Jim Dring believed he could have stopped foot and mouth disease

MARCH 8: Shadow Agriculture Secretary Theresa May demands a full public inquiry into the epidemic

MARCH 10: Defra confirms the report was never sent to the official Anderson Inquiry

MARCH 13: The WMN launches a stinging attack on Margaret Beckett's refusal to accept responsibility over the Dring report

THE Government's decision to suppress vital evidence from the official foot and mouth inquiry has fatally undermined public confidence in its ability to learn the lessons of the 2001 disaster.

Opening a major Commons' debate on animal health yesterday, Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary Theresa May said she had grave concerns about the Government's decision to cover up a report in which state vet Jim Dring said he could have prevented the outbreak.

Mrs May said there was now a need for a full public inquiry into the disaster to restore public confidence in badly hit rural areas like the Westcountry. In his report, the existence of which was exclusively revealed by the WMN last month, Mr Dring said that the 2001 epidemic "would never have come about" if his inspection of Bobby Waugh's Northumberland pig farm in the weeks leading up to the outbreak had been "more rigorous".

But, although the report was addressed to the official Lessons Learned Inquiry chaired by Dr Iain Anderson, it was blocked by officials at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who decided it could prejudice Waugh's trial on foot and mouth related charges.

Mrs May yesterday said the explanation for suppressing the report "does not stand up to scrutiny" because Waugh's trial had been completed long before the Anderson Report was published. And she said that an internal inquiry which cleared ministers and officials of deliberately misleading Dr Anderson "will give no reassurance to the many farmers who want to get to the truth". She said: "The only way to restore our farmers' confidence in the process is to submit to a full public inquiry. We must have some plain and honest answers to some plain and honest questions."

Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw admitted it had been "a mistake" to withhold Mr Dring's "testimony", but he said it would not have changed the recommendations of the Anderson Inquiry.

He also claimed that he had acted to publish Mr Dring's words "as soon as it was drawn to my attention".

In fact Mr Bradshaw only released Mr Dring's report after the WMN had already begun to publish it in full last month.

Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman and St Ives MP Andrew George said opposition MPs and the media had been forced to "drag the truth" out of ministers over the affair.

Mr George pointed out that Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett had initially dismissed Mr Dring's report as mere "musings" when challenged in the Commons. Mr Bradshaw denied this.

Mrs May said the Government had botched the handling of the 2001 outbreak and failed to learn its lessons.

"The year 2001 was possibly the blackest period in modern history for British agriculture," she said.

"The pain and suffering caused to Britain's rural communities was etched on the faces of those farmers who saw a lifetime's work destroyed by a contiguous cull on a massive scale. We owe it to them all to ensure that this can never happen again. Yet I and my colleagues have yet to meet a farmer who believes that we are better prepared for a future outbreak."

Mr Bradshaw insisted that the Government had learned the lessons of the disaster - spending more money on controlling illegal imports and introducing new rules to limit the spread of any outbreak.

And he boasted that the 2001 outbreak, which led to the slaughter of more than six million animals and cost the taxpayer 3 billion, had been handled well.

He said: "When Labour came to power there were out-of-date and insufficient plans for tackling major outbreaks of exotic diseases. Yet this Government managed to control and eradicate the largest outbreak of foot and mouth disease ever in only seven months."

But Huw Edwards, the Labour MP for Monmouth, accused Mr Bradshaw of "spin". He said the crisis had created "over a year of absolute hell in my constituency".